Tag Archives: Natural History Museum

I don’t work in a museum but….


best-blogI don’t work in a museum, but I’ve been nominated (i.e. challenged) to write a blog for the Twitter museumweek hashtag. I nearly didn’t get nominated, you see I don’t actually work in a museum. I quite like museums though, and my study is pretty museum-like, what with shelves of old books and cabinets of old insect specimens. I could argue that it is a sort of museum in embryo, since most museums started out as the personal cabinets of curiosity of whoever founded them. I’m not expecting my disordered boxes to lead on to anything, but I like to think I am museumish in temperament, just as I am bookish. Also, I did work at a proper museum (The Horniman) on a (very) short-term contract a few years ago. With these credentials, I managed to convince a slightly reluctant Erica McAlister from London’s Natural History Museum (see her museumweek blog here) to give me the baton. So here goes.

1. Who are you and what do you blog about? I am an entomologist, and I blog about insects. That might not seem very enlightening, but because I don’t work in a museum my claimed status as an entomologist is rather telling. (In a similar vein, when does a bird-watcher become an ornithologist.) I’m not really an ‘amateur’ since I work on insects professionally, but my lack of attachment to any academic institution also means I have no real accredited professional status. The amateur/professional dichotomy is very blurred in natural history anyway. Many key experts in the field have always been amateurs in the sense that they study insects in their own time and at their own expense; I’ve always argued that a more useful distinction is between a field entomologist (that’s me, by the way, hello) and research entomologists (they’re mostly the ones in museums and universities). I used to try and get away with being a ‘consultant’ entomologist, but that just sounded pompous so I’ve gone back to being just a plain old entomologist, and I’m comfortable with that. I go off into the field, finding invertebrates for environmental surveys. And I sometimes write something about insects too. People pay me to do this. What a lark!

2. What blog piece did you enjoy writing the most? It’s got to be Lego.  I delight in the frivolity of this. That’s one of the pluses of being self-employed.

Our giraffe-necked weevil was a triumph.

Our giraffe-necked weevil was a triumph.

 3. What made you want to start a blog? This was partly a commercial decision; it’s in lieu of a website.  I’d been writing a garden wildlife blog for Gardeners’ World for some years so my personal blog complemented that too. All my work comes in through word of mouth, so both blogs (and Twitter now) at least give me a presence on the interweb.

4. What is the best thing about working in a museum? Academic studious calm. My short-term contract at the Horniman Museum was cataloguing, curating and studying Frederick Horniman’s original collection of exotic beetles and especially specimens of the Horniman beetle, Cyprolais hornimani (Bates, 1877). Though only a few hundred specimens (mainly large showy chafers, scarabs and longhorns) the historical links to some of the major zoological players of the day was fascinating. Bates (of Amazon fame) worked on the beetles, many of which had come from Christian mission stations in Cameroon to which Horniman had personal links; William Lucas Distant (who lived just around the corner from me in East Dulwich) named several bugs and the Horniman swallowtail butterfly (Papilio hornimani) from Tanzania where Horniman had commercial tea plantations. Some of the beetle specimens were collected by Alfred Russel Wallace, others were connected to the expedition sent out to find Livingstone, or came via William Watkins, a commercial insect trader who had a showroom stall at the Crystal Palace, then newly erected up on nearby Sydenham Heath. The few small cabinets of insect specimens provide a wonderful microcosm of colonial exploration, trade and empire in the Victorian era. 

5. If time and money were not an issue, which museum in the world would you most like to visit? Without hesitation it would be the Lord Howe Island Museum. Lying in the South Pacific, between Australia and New Zealand, this remote speck of land must rank as one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and its wildlife, about which I know next to nothing I have to say, must be fascinating. Although there is no museum there, I’d also have to visit the isolated splinter of volcanic rock that is Ball’s Pyramid.

6. What is your earliest museum memory? When, as a 6-year-old, my family relocated from South Norwood (near Croydon) to Newhaven (Sussex), it did not take long for my father (from whom I get my interest in wildlife) to take me to the Booth Museum in Brighton. Although I was already firmly interested in insects I remember being transfixed by all the stuffed birds in glass cases — my first taste of a natural history museum.

7. If you could start up any new museum, which one would it be and why? I think the world needs a museum of etymology, with a large annex dedicated to punctuation, especially apostrophes.

8. Share a museum selfie?

I couldn't actually find one of those, so maybe this art gallery portrait by my daughter Lillian, might suffice.

I couldn’t actually find one of those, so maybe this art gallery portrait by my daughter Lillian, might suffice.

9. If you could own a single object or specimen from a museum’s collections, which one would it be and why? It would either be the Alfred jewel in the Ashmolean, because of the delightful happenchance of its finding, ploughed up in a Somerset field, or the handsome blue john vase that used to sit on a table in Down House which, if memory serves, was stolen some time in the 1980s.

10. What is the most popular post on your blog? It seems to be my photo-record of the 2013 Coleoptera meeting  held, as coincidence would have it, in a museum, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. I think people were looking for photographs of themselves.

11. What’s the oddest comment you have received in relation to a blog post? When I blogged about dissecting a rat at a primary school natural history club, I did not realize it would be seen by the head teacher. She later took me aside for a quiet word. I thought, perhaps, that there had been complaints from the children’s parents. On the contrary, the mixture of revulsion and fascination had been reported to parents favourably. I was told to keep up the good work.

I intend to.


Technically, Museum Week (24–30 March) finished some time ago, but blogs and the hashtag continue to trail on. I’m publishing this blog now, at the very tail end, but if I can nominate someone else, I’ll tack on a post-script here.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year — an open letter

Yesterday (Tuesday 15 October 2013) was the annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards Ceremony. It was held, as usual, at the Natural History Museum, in the fantastic setting of the main hall, with Diplodocus skeleton backdrop and high-end catering.

It’s always great fun to chat to people I know at BBC Wildlife Magazine, meet some of the world’s best photographers and generally hobnob with wildlife and media bods. As ever the photographs were stunning, but…..

I have a gripe. And I have a question.

From nearly 43,000 entries submitted by the photographers of 96 countries, none of the final 100 showed an insect. Not one. Zero. Nought. Nada. How can this be?

There are several possibilities.

Perhaps insect photographers are not very good. Maybe insects just don’t photograph well. Or is it that insect photographers are shy retiring types that shun competitions. I don’t believe any of this. Through the mastery of delicate optics and subtle light, the care and understanding of macro photographers reveals insects (and other invertebrates) as stunning and beautiful creatures; sometimes they can also be bizarre or unnerving, but insect pictures can still have great power and awe-inspiring impact beyond the measure of the subject’s diminutive size. Could it be that the judges are biased?

I have a suggestion to the competition’s organizers, the photographers, and especially the judges — have a care that you are not edging yourselves away from the wildlife you proclaim to support.

Flagship species, megafuna, icons, are all very well, but there seems to be an inward spiralling, a tightening, a contraction of the competition’s scope as each year passes. In my eyes, the competition is no longer about photographing wildlife, it is about photographing the types of wildlife that are likely to win prizes.

Should the competition by renamed?

The Cuddly-Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The Familiar Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The Wildlife (but not bugs please) Photographer of the Year

Or should new categories be added?

Nature at its most disturbing and alien

Creeping and crawling nature

Tiny things made big and a bit scary by magnification

I know this is me being facetious, and I apologise, but this is a complaint I have made before.

Invertebrates, it seems, have been edged out from the competition; whether this is through acquiescence or complicity, I do not know. Even the potential category ‘Behaviour: cold-blooded animals’ appears to have no place for insects, since by ‘cold-blooded’ the judges actually mean reptiles and fish.

The final clincher, the prejudicial insult added to the injury of exclusion, comes from the fact that an invertebrate does, actually, feature prominently in one of the photographs. A giant spider hangs threateningly in the corner of the frame, as the main subject of the image, a soft, sleek, beguiling bird, hangs with an almost melancholy expression, exhausted and helpless in the clinging silk fibres of the ensnaring web. The only invertebrate on show is there simply to add stereotypical menace to the composition.

I sometimes have a playful dig at BBC Wildlife Magazine because there are never insects on the cover. I do, however, accept that this single image displayed on a newsstand will make or break over-the-counter sales. There are plenty of insects inside though.

At the awards ceremony, much was made of the passion of the photographers, their dedication to stalking, waiting, understanding their subjects, and wanting to promote conservation and awareness of the vanishing wildlife of a planet under threat. The judges, too, are advocating these laudable intents, but I believe they are failing to address the wildlife of the competition’s title.

Insects are the most bewilderingly diverse and mind-numbingly numerous creatures on the planet. They occur everywhere from seashore to mountain top. They dominate the centre of virtually every ecological web imaginable. In fact, from an ecological point of view, it is arguable whether any of the iconic megafauna presented at the competition actually matters at all. Insects control the Earth. Insects ARE the wildlife of the Earth.

I challenge the judges of this most prestigious photography competition, to recognize this, and to reflect it in their choices in the future.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2012

For several years running, as BBC Wildlife‘s Bug Czar, I’ve managed to wangle an invite to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year award ceremony held up at the Natural History Museum. It’s a great bash — fantastic, subtly lit setting around the Diplodocus skeleton in the museum’s main atrium, interesting chat with photographers and the bods from the magazine and the environmental industry. Good food and stunning pictures.

I always have a slight moan about not many insect pictures. Although I had to shut up two years ago when a photo of leaf-cutter ants won the final overall prize. This year was even more pathetic — only two insect photographs, both flies, and one the stereotype of bad insect behaviour, a mosquito sucking blood from a bare arm.

Bill Oddie (he said, name-dropping), who was sitting one person away from me at table 18 was almost equally disparaging about all the pretty pictures of penguins and cheetahs and flamingoes. His gripe, and I follow him here, is that when people see pretty pictures of animals they feel good. But what they really need to see, even if they don’t want to, is pictures of the terrible destruction, desecration, corruption and dilution of nature. Then they’ll do something about it.

It’s a difficult one. The competition is now so big, and for all its partners (BBC Wildlife, Natural History Museum and Veolia Environnement) it has become a prestigious showcase of wonderful pictures that are flashed all around the world. These are aspirational brands, rather than campaigning organizations, and they need feel-good images. A selection of pictures is available through the websites of The Guardian, MSN, or The Metro; they show some of the typical portraits.

There were some challenging images, the photojournalism themes showed harrowing pictures of rhino poaching and tiger rainforest destruction, there were bleak pictures of African wild dogs and melting ice floes. But during the presentation itself I felt slightly underwhelmed. This was partly because I find pretty pictures not so very interesting. It was also partly because of the format of the evening. We only got to see runner up and winner of each category — a small proportion of the pictures on show in the display gallery. But we had to wait until after the dinner and awards announcements before we were let into the exhibition hall to see the rest.

It was not always so; until 2010 the initial gathering always took place amidst the displayed pictures, and there was much commentary and debate about which photos might be winners, and why. Here was a chance to see all the cuddly mammals and awe-inspiring landscape pictures, and the disturbing ones too. There has always been a smattering of insect photos, which, by the very nature of getting close to a bug, are challenging or disturbing — much more likely to elicit the response “so what’s going on here, then”, rather than “wow, pretty”. To select 2 insects from over 48,000 entries seems a bit lame. Either the judges need to get their thinking right; or entomologists need to submit more pictures.

Behind the scenes at the museum

On Tuesday 4 September I took 7-year-old up to the Natural History Museum, the last day of the summer holiday before going back to school on the Wednesday. It was the perfect time. Most kids had already gone back to school by then, but school trips to the museum had not started yet. There was us, and a few tourists, the quietest I have even seen it. Bliss.

While we were there I took the opportunity to go and have a look at the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity.

The Angela Marmont Centre, part of the new Darwin wing of the Natural History Museum.

I’d heard about the place, but never been in. As a teenager, and after university when I first moved to London, I often heard about entomologists ‘going to the BM’. In those days it was still the British Museum (Natural History) or BM(NH). At the time I did not know anyone working behind the scenes, and always felt a bit too daunted to go and have a look at the national collections to try and identify some tricky specimen or other.

The Angela Marmont Centre is set up for people just like me. In the introductory video, here, it is specifically touted as a ‘way in’ to the perhaps fusty and dusty academic expertise behind the scenes. But, more than this, it tries to offer visitors a chance for them to make their own discoveries, and identify their own finds.

There are extensive representative collections of UK insects (and other organisms no doubt), and there is a good starting-point library of identification guides. So, rather than just hand over a specimen and have an expert name it there and then, a visitor is much more likely to be guided to the relevant drawers of potential genera, and allowed to browse through the collections,  confirming an identification by using the ID guides and monographs. It is the obvious place for the novice entomologist to take along a boxful of troublesome specimens to work through.

You are supposed to make an appointment, but we just rolled up and rang on the doorbell. Luckily Chris Raper and Stuart Hine were on hand to give us a brief guided tour.

Death’s-head hawk-moths. Anything with a skull on it is cool for a 7-year-old.

There are plenty of practical identification guides and manuals, actually the library of the London Natural History Society.

The stuffed fox is for decoration rather than identification.

There is plenty of laboratory bench space, enough to house visiting groups from natural history societies when not being used for coffee breaks.

It’s not just insects, here Stuart Hine shows us a pretty, if slightly archaic, display of British lichens.

The centre is open  10.00-17.30 weekdays and the first Saturday and Sunday of the month. More information, and contact details for making appointments, are on their website here.